When I first became committed to the things of the Lord, I was a sponge. I took whatever anyone was giving so long as they said they loved Jesus. I bought whatever was sold as long as it had a cross on it. I remember my bookshelf when I was just beginning. It consisted of J. Vernon McGee’s five-volume transcription of his Through the Bible Radio broadcasts and Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict Volume 2. I literally thought there could only be one or two other people on earth studying Christianity as deeply as I was. After all, I had never heard of anyone who had a “commentary” on the Bible. I kid you not, I started taking my McGee commentaries on dates and giving Bible studies to girls who could care less about the Bible, but would humor me as I expounded on my discoveries about the birth narrative of Jesus. Being so new to the area of Christian scholarship, I had no discernment about what was good and what was bad. I did not even know there was such a thing as a “bad” category out there! I remember opening the cabinet where my mother kept all her Christian books and finding a storehouse of treasures. I read everything I could get my hands on. After all, if it was published, it must be good. At least that is how I thought…then.
I suppose my first exposure to the “dark side” of this world came when I read a book about the evil origin of all other Bible translations other than the King James Version. I was completely blown away. Everything I knew was wrong. There was a secret deception in the Christian camp! And the guys who wrote about this deception knew what they were talking about. At least, as far as I knew, they knew what they were talking about. After all, they were referring to history, Greek, and textual issues. This was all stuff I had never heard about. I supposed they had uncovered a secret plot. And I bought it. Why? Because I did not know any better. However, over the next few months, I investigated more thoroughly and found out there were going to be some issues were I to blindly accept their “scholarship.” First, I would have to reject just about everything I had read to date. Luckily, J. Vernon McGee used the King James, so he was safe. But most of the other books I had been reading used a variety of “off-limits” translations. Second, I came find out there were others out there who knew history, Greek, and textual issues, who did not agree with the findings of the King James Version crowd.
Over the years, I committed myself to becoming an expert in whatever area related to my Christian studies. I first started with textual criticism. I read everything I could find on the issue. I eventually made the decision that the position claiming the King James Version was the only acceptable translation (which I soon found out was called “King James Only”) was off-base, to say the least. That was one of the easier decisions to make. I then moved to issues of creation/evolution. I exhausted myself trying to learn everything that was known, said, and argued about every position out there. I even carried around a notecard workbook with all the terms, positions, and arguments, and would quiz my family and friends (they eventually quit hanging around me!). Then I moved to studies of Revelation. Then to the “synoptic problem.” Then to the charismatic gifts debate. Then to the canon. Everywhere I went, I entered with a desire to understand as well as anyone out there (after all, I had a mind that worked just as well as anyone’s), but was left scratching my head, finding it hard to know who to trust.
Today, things are only more confusing. It was bad enough back then. But now with the internet, there is no end to alternative positions, soapboxes, and know-it-alls. I have finally realized I could never be an expert in every area. In fact, I was losing hope at becoming an expert in any one area. I had a choice to make. The way I figured, I could do one of four things: 1) keep plugging away at everything, hoping I could someday speak with authority on all things; 2) close my eyes, hold my ears, and just make the choices I hoped were best;3) become a hopeless relativist, believing that the never-ending options translated into never finding “the” truth; or 4) find a way to lean on trusted sources of integrity.
I have chosen number four. I will never be an expert on everything, but I can find honorable and studied men and women who are truly searching for the truth and have devoted more time than I will ever be able to log in their area of expertise. Like it or not, I have to “outsource” much of my studies to other people. I call this “referred conviction.”
Referred Conviction: knowledge or belief that comes through the valid trust we place in the expertise of another.
Although every one of these could be a blog post in itself, here are the things I generally look for in a scholar:
- Do they have a reputable education?
- Are they balanced?
- Are they overly dogmatic?
- Are they overly non-committal (i.e. “academic agnosticism”)?
- Do they recognize and bring to light the difficulties with their own positions when debatable?
- Are they prone to demonize those who don’t agree, or do they speak to them with a humble, respectful tone?
- Are they recognized and/or endorsed by others whom I deem to be reliable?
- Does their position ostracize other positions solely due to their associations (i.e., “this can’t be right, it is held by Catholics”)?
- Have they recanted or admitted when they have been wrong before (this is a big one, as it shows the scholar is not “in it” to hold a fort, but to discover truth)?
- Do they know when to quit?
- Is their scholarship and ambition based on a fringe or nonessential issue?
- Is their identity found in and tied to a particular institution, denomination, or ministry which demands certain conclusions?
- Do they know and promote the difference between essentials and nonessentials?
I could go on, but I think this gives you an idea of what I mean. And you know what? It is sad to say, but when these criteria are followed, the choices for good “scholars” shrink quite a bit. I am not saying every one of these must be present in perfection, but if five or six are represented, then I have good reason to refer my conviction to that individual.
Some of you may be asking why “Christ-honoring” is not one of the criteria. You must understand that these criteria have come to define “Christ-honoring” to me.
By the way, if I see these phrases represented too much, I quickly move on:
“I am absolutely certain that . . .”
“There is not a doubt in my mind . . .“
“The church has always believed . . .”
“Everyone knows that . . .”
“It is perfectly clear . . .”
“No educated person believes . . .”
“Nothing could be further from the truth.“
“How can you be so stupid?”
“Have you completely lost your mind?”
Conversation stoppers do not a valid argument make
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]